Dick Armey

Is he really worse than Newt?

Illustration by Philip Burke

You better not try to stand in my way

as I’m walkin’ out the door

Take this job and shove it

I ain’t workin’ here no more.

–Johnny Paycheck

What politician enjoyed the Fourth of July holiday more than Dick Armey? While his colleagues were out hustling for campaign dollars and marching in sticky-hot parades, the House’s majority leader was casting for bass on an Army Corps of Engineers lake just northwest of Dallas, humming a Hank Williams tune.

At least, that’s what we’ve come to expect, given the persona Armey has cultivated: a plain-speaking, country-music-loving guy who would (to quote the bumper sticker) “rather be fishing” than putting up with Washington’s political BS. This “I-ain’t-much-at-speechifyin’ ” image has served Armey well in his surprising rise through the ranks of the House Republican leadership, setting him apart from other politicians and making him seem personable. But it has cost him respect.

Is Armey just one step away from the speakership? Or is he the only thing keeping the debilitated Newt Gingrich in power? The moderates in the GOP caucus (such as they are) find Armey too conservative and outspoken to serve as speaker, while the hard-liners say he’s too ineffective a spokesman to replace Gingrich. Having already paid too high a political price for Gingrich’s failings, Republican incumbents don’t want another headache leading the party.

Illustration by Philip Burke

Hence GOP insiders are taking Armey down a few pegs. Arianna Huffington, bicoastal proprietress of the Republican political salon, took a break from her endless campaign against Gingrich to attack his heir apparent in one of her recent op-eds. Calling Armey “Newt Gingrich’s best insurance policy,” she accused him of duplicity in defending Gingrich when simply everyone knows, dahling, that the GOP needs new leadership. “It is high time,” Huffington wrote, “for some young Turks to recognize that there are moments when appeasement is more destructive than war–and to strike.”

Armey has been dismissed before–beginning with his first run for Congress in 1984. A geeky economics professor with a Midwestern accent challenging an entrenched Texas Democrat, Armey was given no chance of winning. Soon after capturing what would become a safe seat, he fathered one of the unlikeliest pieces of legislation to emerge from Congress: a bill creating an apolitical process for closing obsolete military bases. In 1992, he surprised fellow Republicans by challenging GOP Conference Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., a party insider and known conciliator, and took his job from him. In 1993, asked whether he would run for the minority whip post in the 104th Congress, Armey told everyone (including an incredulous Dick Gephardt, in a limousine ride back from the White House) that he expected to be the next majority leader. He may have been grinning, but he wasn’t joking.

But Armey’s refusal to play the Washington game–to dine with media stars or golf with lobbyists–makes him an outsider. And he pays for this lack of political refinement, as the political oddsmakers portray him as a boorish ideologue and rhetorical bumbler prone to such “Armey Axioms” as “You can’t put your finger on a problem when you’ve got it to the wind.”

Damaging Armey further is his contemptuous relationship with the press. He rarely gives direct answers to unfriendly questions, although he’s always good for a few bizarre Dan Rather Texasisms. Instead of giving artful non-answers to tough questions–a prerequisite talent for politicians–Armey usually lets fly a smart-aleck comment that gets him in trouble: Soon after becoming majority leader, he referred to Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., as “Barney Fag.” But after a shaky first few months in charge, Armey settled in as the House’s relatively effective chief operating officer.

In recent weeks, a series of Republican legislative misplays has increased skepticism about whether Armey can be speaker. Most of the fault lies with Gingrich: The speaker has been considered politically dead for so long that most folks talk about him as a quaint memory. But, as Huffington noted, Armey has not acquitted himself well with his effort to keep up appearances.

Still, suppose Armey were passed over for the job. Consider the rest of the Republican leadership:

Majority Whip Tom DeLay, another Texan, is Armey’s opposite–the Republican Jim Wright. Rank-and-file Republicans fear DeLay and respect his political abilities, but they don’t like him or trust him as much as they do Armey.

John Boehner, a slick but likable Ohioan who chairs the House Republican Conference, is as adept at playing the Washington game as is DeLay–befriending reporters, making goo-goo eyes at lobbyists, passing around campaign contributions on the House floor, etc. But he’s more comfortable behind the scenes; pencil him in as the next whip.

Bill Paxon, a Gingrich minion at the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s fund-raising and spending apparatus that helped win the House for the GOP in 1994, is enthusiastic and smart but doesn’t seem tough enough to be speaker. The classic sidekick (even to his wife, Susan Molinari), Paxon is being talked about as the next majority leader. Call him Armey’s good-cop counterpart.

Which leaves us with Armey. Knowing that he’s close to getting the job, he’s started to cultivate a more conciliatory image. But a softer Dick Armey is a tall order, and it’s resulted in more verbal gaffes and more unseemly backpedaling. On a recent Meet the Press, the New Dick agonized over the question of human rights in China, but then reached the conclusion that free trade is a basic human right, and voted as usual for MFN status.

What to expect from Speaker Armey? He doesn’t waffle. Throughout his political career, he has focused on free-market economic principles: unrestricted trade, low taxes, less government regulation. Unlike Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, another former economics professor, Armey has avoided budget hypocrisy by eschewing the pork barrel–some of the military bases he closed were in his state. He took on farm subsidies. He was pro-flat tax before flat tax was cool. And his advocacy of the flat tax isn’t just some Gingrichian intellectual dalliance, a Gephardtian populist pose, or even a Forbesian attempt to pocket a few million more bucks a year.

Holding fast to one’s beliefs has never been a desirable trait in congressional leaders. Yet it would be unwise to count Armey out. Even Republican loyalists would agree that anybody is better than Gingrich, whose image-softening efforts consist of photo ops with furry animals. Armey prefers his wildlife flailing at the end of a baited hook. Those who worry about how the ruffian image will play should Armey become speaker can rest easy: As both angler and politician, one Armey admirer told me, “He’s catch-and-release.”